2020 for the restaurant industry has been shaped by a historic number of closings. But in the shadow of that heartbreaking news, there’s some good news for the industry, too: Even now, new restaurants are opening. In fact, by the fall of 2020, new restaurant openings actually rose to near pre-pandemic levels, a recent Yelp report found. In New York State alone, more than 2,500 new restaurants or food businesses have debuted since spring 2020, as highlighted in a recent Astrolabe newsletter.
It’s well known that launching a restaurant is an audacious act even in the best of times, so these figures are even more extraordinary during the pandemic. But it turns out there are several factors — such as available turnkey spaces and the ability to tailor concepts to the current times — that actually make this a favorable time to launch a new restaurant, as the three restaurants below demonstrate. Additionally, a large number of seasoned hospitality pros are currently looking for their next opportunity in a time where there’s pent-up demand for dining out, and the industry anticipates that those floodgates will open as the vaccine rollout reaches a critical mass later this year.
Here’s a look at three restaurants in different parts of the country that have opened in the past few months. Their experiences reveal the unseen upsides to starting a restaurant amid a global pandemic.
Seizing an opportunity
Though they represent a closed restaurant, turnkey situations have made way for new projects, making it easier for first-time restaurateurs in particular to get their feet under them.
When Giuseppe Gagliano, a longtime restaurant manager, and chef Roberto Ciacciofera noticed that a particularly desirable restaurant space had become available, they jumped into action. Together with Giuseppe’s daughter Adriana, they opened R&G Salumeria Wine Bar, which serves the cuisine of their native Sicily, in San Diego in October. Giuseppe cashed in his 401(k) to fund the project. “It just seemed like one more crazy decision during a crazy time. No one knows when life will be normal again. We just thought, ‘Why wait?’” explains Adriana.
Not all new ventures have that element of spontaneity. Many of the restaurants that opened in recent months were in the works long before the pandemic began. The partners behind Uproar, a new upscale diner in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, originally planned to open their restaurant last July. “We opened [in October] because we had to,” says Uproar partner Danny Horwitch. “That’s when our lease kicked in,” he explains.
Though unexpected, the delay did present opportunities. The Uproar partners were able to tweak certain aspects of the restaurant’s build-out to save money and make it more pandemic-friendly. “We were in the middle of construction in June when it sunk in that this was going to go on for a long time,” Horwitch says.
So the team increased the HVAC budget for better ventilation, installed hand sanitizing stations around the restaurant, and bought fewer tables and chairs to account for what will likely be sustained capacity limits. When restaurants are able to welcome diners back inside, Uproar will be well prepared.
Spotting the silver linings
Delays like that also gave new restaurants time to adjust their concept in light of the changing concerns and interests that came up because of the coronavirus crisis. Anh Luu, chef at Bywater Brew Pub in New Orleans, took the time to rethink her menu. Suddenly putting more healthful items on the menu seemed like the right thing to do, considering people are so focused on staying well, as well as making sure each dish translated well to takeout.
“I reworked it with an eye toward what would work best in these circumstances,” she says. Keeping costs in check was also on her mind. She wanted to get the most mileage out of every vegetable and herb. “I focused on dishes that share the same ingredients used in different ways,” she says. All these little tune-ups set Bywater Brew Pub up for success now and in the future.
Adriana Gagliano at R&G Salumeria Wine Bar is most grateful for the restaurant’s spacious patio. “Currently restrictions in California mean there’s no table service or indoor dining at all, but people order takeout and enjoy it on the patio,” says Adriana. It’s given them visibility in the neighborhood and drawn diners in at a time when it can be hard to get the word out about a new spot.
New restaurants in other parts of the country don’t have the benefit of southern California’s warm winter temperatures and outdoor dining set-up. In Chicago, the average high temperature in January is literally freezing — 32 degrees. But that hasn’t stopped Horwitch from seeing the positive aspects of Uproar’s unusual origin story.
According to Horwitch, one bittersweet aspect of opening a new restaurant right now is the number of talented, seasoned hospitality professionals looking for work. Last summer, the National Restaurant Association reported that 8 million restaurant workers were unemployed because of the pandemic. In December, amid new shutdowns and surging cases, the U.S Department of Labor reported a loss of 372,000 food service jobs. But these restaurant openings are giving some of those people a way to get back to work. “It’s heartbreaking, but it has worked out in our favor,” Horwitch says.
Putting faith in the future
Dining at a restaurant or sitting at a crowded bar are experiences that top many people’s list of things they’ve been pining for most. This unquantifiable but palpable pent-up demand for dining out can give all restaurant owners a reason to be hopeful. Horwitch is already looking with excitement toward Uproar’s post-pandemic future. “People are itching to get out. When it’s safe, I think it’s going to be bananas in here,” he says.
He also believes that the way the restaurant community there has come together during this time bodes for a brighter future for everyone: “As small restaurants, we’re supporting each other in a way I’ve never seen before. It used to be a friendly competition, now we’re just trying to get through it together.” He expects that spirit of support to continue even after the pandemic has faded.
Bywater Brew Pub’s owner Nahum Laventhal also believes better days are ahead. Between COVID-19 restrictions and a major downturn in tourism, the brewpub hasn’t exactly been serving its max capacity in its opening months. But feedback from the early diners has been encouraging, Laventhal and Luu say.
Even now, travelers are beginning to let themselves imagine booking flights and making reservations later in the year. “The weather will warm up. People will be vaccinated,” Laventhal says. “When people feel good about going out, when tourism is back in full swing, I know we’ll do well.”